Four years ago, when the videogame industry gathered in Los Angeles for the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2015, many felt as if change was in the air. It was the first E3 since Gamergate had become a household term, so industry insiders and observers alike watched the annual event closely to see how the heated conflict over the place women occupied in gaming culture would be reflected in the games that powerhouses like Sony and Microsoft brought to the show.
If you do an online search for "E3 2015 women" today, what you'll find is that many did feel that year's expo represented a kind of turning point. News stories celebrated women taking on "stronger roles" in videogames and heralded "the rise" of women gamers. Microsoft's press conference that year featured a game called ReCore, starring a woman named Joule who explores a desolate world accompanied by a trio of mechanical companions. The spry swordfighter Emily Kaldwin appeared as a playable character in the stealth action sequel Dishonored 2. EA revealed that women's teams would finally be playable in the next entry in their annual FIFA soccer series. Sony showed off Aloy, the formidable huntress star of Horizon: Zero Dawn. And gang leader Evie Frye shared top billing with her twin brother Jacob in Assassin's Creed: Syndicate.
We at Feminist Frequency wanted to see if this handful of high-profile female heroes actually represented a statistically significant shift, or if those of us starving for more and better representation were just seeing what we wanted to see. So we ran the numbers. Looking at every game featured at every major E3 press conference for that year, we found that out of the 76 games featured, only a paltry seven of them centered female heroes—less than 10 percent. Meanwhile, more than three times as many games, over 30 percent of the total, centered male heroes.
Of course, game development takes time. Most of the games revealed at E3 2015 had probably been in development for a year or two at least—and had certainly been in the works prior to the explosion of Gamergate—and one can't expect an industry as massive as videogames to turn on a dime. So we kept watching, kept doing statistical analysis on the games presented at each E3, to see if things would change. Now, having crunched the numbers for our fifth E3, we can say it: They haven't. This year, the number of games that center women came in at just 5 percent—up from a low point of just 3 percent (two games!) in 2016 and below the high point of 9 percent in 2015.
Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit are the executive director and managing editor of Feminist Frequency.
Now, E3 in 2019 isn't quite what E3 was in 2015. The show's relevance is slowly waning as some studios and developers rely less on big annual press conferences and more on Twitch streams or internally produced YouTube videos to reach fans. Significantly, Sony took a pass on this year's event, though it made a huge splash just a few weeks ago with a gameplay reveal for the upcoming PlayStation exclusive Death Stranding. Nonetheless, E3 remains the single biggest gaming event of the year, and the best snapshot of how the industry is defining itself and delivering what it believes consumers want to see.
So, let's take a closer look at this year's results. Of the 126 games we tallied from the E3 events held by Microsoft, Nintendo, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Square Enix, and EA, as well as the annual PC Gaming Show, a paltry six centered exclusively female protagonists, while almost five times as many, 28, centered male characters. (When you consider that we place role-playing games in which you control a party of heroes in our "multiple options" category, the numbers are even more dire, since a significant number of these games, including the Final Fantasy VII remake, Final Fantasy VIII, Dragon Quest XI, The Last Remnant Remastered, and others, clearly center male heroes.)
It's true that the number of games in which you either control characters of different genders or get to choose the gender of your hero character significantly outstrip those with established male or female protagonists. And of course, as a general trend, the freedom to choose or create your own character is a welcome one. However, it's fundamentally different from being asked by a game to take on the role and experiences of a specific character. A male player who is more comfortable with experiences that center men can and will simply play as men in games that offer him the choice. On the other hand, every player who comes to a game such as Wolfenstein: Youngblood must step into the shoes of a female character in order to play. It's also essential to note that the raw numbers say nothing whatsoever about the quality of these representations. The mere fact that Youngblood's protagonists are women is no guarantee whatsoever that those representations will be good ones. Games can and often do center women while also reinforcing harmful stereotypes or turning those women into sexual fantasies for the benefit of straight male players. Still, we can hope.
More and better representations of women remain an essential part of the change we hope to see in the videogame industry, but we can't focus entirely on the games themselves. It's also crucial to look at the actual human beings who represent the industry, who get to come out on stage at E3 and be a face and a voice for what the future of gaming holds. This year, across the events we surveyed, women made up a mere 21 percent of speakers and presenters. That's not great, but it's also worth noting that the ratio was especially bad at some events. Of the 15 speakers at Square Enix's event, only two were women, and only two of the 17 speakers at Bethesda's press conference were women.
Finally, a note on combat and violence in games. During Ubisoft's presentation, a trailer for their upcoming game, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint, featured actor Jon Bernthal utter the line, "The only test of a man's worth is battle," unwittingly distilling what seems to be a widespread perception among both players and game designers. This year, of the 126 games we surveyed, 107 featured combat of some form as a gameplay mechanic, while only 19 games, or about 15 percent, did not. Of course, not all combat is the same: the endearing sword-swinging of Link in Nintendo's adorable upcoming remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is a far cry from the grisly demon-slaying of Doom: Eternal. However, we believe that there remains a vast range of unexplored potential for games as a medium, and continue to advocate for a greater percentage of games that explore the possibilities of nonviolent gameplay mechanics.
It would be easy to get disheartened by the lack of significant statistical change we've seen over five years of collecting this data, but we choose simply to take it as an indication that there is still work to be done. Our belief in the vast potential of games as a medium remains as strong as ever, as does our appreciation for all the women and other marginalized people who love games and continue to fight for a better, more diverse and inclusive industry.